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Encyclopedia of The Bible – Molten Sea
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Molten Sea

SEA, MOLTEN (יָ֖ם מוּצָ֑ק, molten sea, יָ֧ם הַנְּחֹ֛שֶׁת, sea of bronze; KJV BRAZEN). A large receptacle for water, cast from molten bronze, which stood in the court of Solomon’s Temple. Solomon commissioned Hiram of Tyre, a skilled worker of bronze, to make the various castings for the Temple. The sea was made from metal which David had captured from Zobah (1 Chron 18:8), and was in turn broken up and carried off by the Babylonians (2 Kings 25:13). It is described as round, having a diameter of ten cubits at the brim, a circumference of thirty cubits and a height of five cubits (1 Kings 7:23-26). The brim was decorated with castings of knobs or gourds (so BDB, Heb. פְּקָעִימ׃֩) placed in two rows around the circumference of the lip. It was mounted on a base consisting of twelve oxen, also cast from bronze, three facing toward each of the four cardinal points of the compass. The metal was cast a handsbreadth in thickness, and the lip was curved over like the flower of a lily.

The sea was positioned “on the southeast corner of the house” (1 Kings 7:39). This suggests that it was either beside the altar, or in any case not in a direct line between the altar and the Temple door. The reason for this apparent variation from the Tabernacle layout is not clear. Nor is it clear why there were provided the extra ten lavers if the sea had the same function as the Tabernacle laver. The identical function of both, namely for the priests’ washings, can be seen from a comparison of Exodus 30:17ff. with 2 Chronicles 4:6.

There has been no lack of modern explanations of the significance of the sea in terms of ancient mythology. The identification of the bulls with the twelve signs of zodiac is almost certainly anachronistic, but they have been favored also as symbols of fertility and hence linked with the Babylonian Apsu, the water of life and fertility. Such attempts to link Heb. concepts with Babylonian origins often ignore the distinctive meanings conveyed in the revealed religion of Israel. The fact that there was a similar sea in the temple at Babylon which was linked to the myth of Apsu says nothing about the significance of the sea in Solomon’s Temple, for Israel had no myth of Apsu, but on the contrary had a firm conviction of the historical basis of its faith.

The volume and shape of the sea are problematical because of the lack of specifications and because of uncertainty over the measurement of baths and cubits. The shape described seems most naturally to fit a hemisphere, except that 1 Kings 7:26 describes a lip which could alter the ratio of volume to circumference. Other suggestions of the shape are that it was cylindrical or that it bulged with a diameter considerably larger than the ten cubits at the brim. A further difficulty arises from the discrepancy between the volumes recorded in 1 Kings 7:26 (2,000 baths) and in 2 Chronicles 4:5 (3,000 baths). The Chronicler, writing after the destruction of the Temple, could have misunderstood his sources with regard to the shape, and so have applied a different formula for vol., or he may have had a different standard of measurement for cubit or bath.

Bibliography W. F. Albright, Archeology and the Religion of Israel (1956); J. V. K. Wilson, “The Epic of Creation” in ed. D. W. Thomas, Documents From Old Testament Times (1958); R. B. Y. Scott, “Weights and Measures of the Bible,” BA, XXII (1959).